Lambs Among Wolves

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

We often pray for God’s protection as if it was a temporary condition in need of regular renewal.

We are frightened, fully aware of our fragility and the evil of the world. We get hurt, physically and emotionally. Our scars are deep. We don’t trust. We are jittery, and for good reason. Naturally, in fearful times such as these many of us double up on our prayers for protection.

The seventy-two disciples in today’s gospel went out like “lambs among wolves” to proclaim the Kingdom of God in hostile territories. Yet they returned from their mission to Jesus rejoicing in their success, saying  “even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” [Luke 10:1-12, 17-20].

I wonder if we realize that we also have been given the power to do the same? Every day we are called to continue the Christian mission that the disciples handed down to us, to join ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, to work for the good of all of God’s creation, and to “tread upon the full force of the enemy.”

Just like the seventy-two disciples, and the communion of saints before us, we are protected. The power to oppose violence and proclaim the Kingdom of God is within us. Let’s not succumb to fear.  We aren’t wolf bait.

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Visit www.agnusday.org, the Lectionary comic strip, where each week Rick and Ted discuss one of the assigned readings from the Common Lectionary. http://www.agnusday.org/comics/185/luke-101-11-16-20-2007

Cartoon courtesy of © James Wetzstein, 2007

Are You In? Brace Yourself

13th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

We are free to choose whether or not to take up the yoke of discipleship and follow Jesus, but to those who accepted the call, Jesus was absolutely clear about his expectations. It won’t be easy, and there are no alternative routes on the journey.

 “I will follow you wherever you go” —Luke 9:57

There’s no rest, no downtime, and no relaxing of the rule to love. When Paul told the Galatians that “Christ set us free,” [Gal 5:1] meaning, free from adherence to the 613 Mitzvot[1] of Judaic law, Paul reminded them that there was still the one all-encompassing, non-negotiable rule that Jesus left them with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Gal 5:14].

Some early Christians, and some still today, misinterpreted “freedom” or “being saved” to mean they were now somehow separated from and therefore not responsible for the rest of God’s creation. Paul warned them against such self-centeredness, telling them to “not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” [Gal 5:13]. It is too easy to misread Paul’s use of the word “flesh” to mean illicit sex, debauchery, and licentious behavior. But by “flesh” Paul was saying that any act of selfishness was an act of self-gratification and therefore opposed to the rule of love, or as Robert J. Karris puts it, “Flesh is the entire world turned against God.”[2]

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to his crucifixion, when he responded to the person who said: “I will follow you wherever you go.” The text says Jesus was “resolutely determined” to be on his way, and as shocking as this is to our systems, so too should we.

“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” —Luke 9:59

There’s no time like the present. Jesus’ response “Let the dead bury their dead” seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? After all, don’t we have responsibilities to our family members? And this guy only wanted to go home and bury his father. Or did he? The text doesn’t say his father was lying there dead in his burial cloth; he might have been in perfect health for another twenty years for all we know. The one who Jesus called hesitated, not because he didn’t want to answer Jesus’ call, but because he didn’t think the time was right. Jesus is saying, “No, I will not hold.”

John Shea writes, “With Jesus’ command, “Follow me,” a new and vital possibility has entered his life, a possibility that demands immediate and wholehearted response.”[3]

Spiritual inspiration is like a spark which unfanned, will die. And like the one who wants to follow Jesus but who isn’t ready, those of us who hesitate —the wait-and-see followers —“will be in the position of a son who is spiritually dead burying a father who is physically dead.”[4]

Following begins the moment we’ve been called. Don’t wait until the calendar is clear to accept Jesus’ invitation.

“I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” —Luke 9:61

There’s no turning back. The Prophet Elijah allowed Elisha to return to kiss his parents goodbye before following him, [1 Kings 19:20] but Jesus’ invitation demands a full and immediate commitment from those he calls. He says, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:62].

Elisha destroyed the plow he had been using and fed the twelve oxen leading it to his people. He literally changed his occupation and did not turn back. Once called, life looks different.

Obviously, the single focus that discipleship commands does not say we all quit our jobs and leave our families; what it does command, however, is our determination and resolve. “It is only sheer individual resolve that will overturn the earth significantly enough for the seed of the gospel to be planted. A determined hand on the plough is Jesus’ concern.”[5]

Are you in?

________________

[1] Mitzvot (Commandments) includes positive (acts to perform), and negative commandments (acts from which to abstain).
[2] Robert J. Karris, OFM. “The Letter to the Galatians”, in The New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament. edited by Daniel Durken. Collegeville, MN: Liturigical Press. 2009.  581-601, here 598.
[3] John Shea. 2006. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow. Year C edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 182.
[4] Shea, 182.
[5] Shea, 182.

But, Does it Give Life?

12th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Poor Paul. I mean St. Paul, the former Saul of Tarsus, the once rabid persecutor of Christians whose profound encounter with the risen Christ, subsequent conversion and career about-face, and marathon-like journeys to spread the truth of Jesus to the ends of the earth, led to the rapid growth of the early Christian church.

Artistic portrayals of Paul often present him in tidy settings, calmly preaching to a rapt audience, his right arm raised for emphasis, or sitting at a well-appointed desk, plume in hand, with reference materials within reach. But I envision Paul with his head in his hands, his face a portrait of incredulity, his frustration nearly boiling over. I also see Paul channeling his urgent responses into the expanded writings on the life-giving truths of Jesus, letters which were both a gift to those communities, and to us.

Paul intrigues me. During my time as a student at CTU (Catholic Theological Union), I was fortunate to have studied many of Paul’s letters under the guidance of some top-notch biblical scholars, an experience which fostered in me the desire to know more about the life of Paul, his theology, and the Christian communities he established.

When I sit with one of Paul’s letters, such as Galatians,[1] I try to insert myself into the text, either as a member of the receiving community, (in this case the Galatians, who were receiving misinformation) or as one of his opponents, (the other teachers who were sidelining Paul’s teaching) or even as Paul himself.

And in doing so, I experience a deep sense of empathy for the man and his mission.

Galatians is a short letter of 6 chapters that can be read in one sitting. Note that I left out the word “easily” because Paul employs a rhetorical style of writing that may have made complete sense to his contemporaries but is foreign to most modern-day readers. Paul’s sentences are lengthy, complex, and challenging to read aloud, even for experienced lectors.

Early on in my biblical studies there’d be times when I’d think “Man, this guy needs an editor” or “Get to the point already!” But I’ve come to admire Paul’s complex, often nuanced apologetics. And what I have learned about Paul’s vulnerability, persistence, courage, and his life-giving patience and love for the members of the early church continues to inspire me.

Paul’s conviction that he was specifically called by Christ to spread the gospel compelled him to risk his life and personal comfort. He willingly gave up the respect of his peers and took on the identity of the despised. He was beaten, left for dead, and imprisoned. Paul was continually challenged to defend his authority and was falsely accused of having pilfered or created the gospel he preached. He was seen as a braggart, and at times he was difficult to be with, but he loved and was loved by the faith communities he established.[2]

Paul’s extraordinary life and his zeal for his apostolic mission represent the sum of discipleship which Jesus so succinctly spelled out to his apostles: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” [Luke 9:23]

But imagine how tiresome it must have been for Paul to have to defend his calling again and again, and how frustrating it was to receive news from church communities that the gospel he shared and which had been so well received was being misinterpreted or dismantled. What stamina he must have had to continue to correct and console, to convince and exhort the early Christians to keep the faith and believe the truth about Jesus Christ.

Scripture scholar, educator and author, Robert J Karris, OFM, likens the conversion experience of Paul and the subsequent skepticism of his authenticity by others to that of St. Francis of Assisi, whose radical rejection of worldly comforts for a life of asceticism led many to question not only his authenticity but his sanity. Karris suggests that one major criterion used to judge the veracity of a person’s actions, a storyline, or a teaching is to ask, Does it give life?

So, by putting Paul’s teachings to the test of whether or not they give life, Karris judged them to be truthful because they had “given life to the Galatians, who had received the Spirit through Paul’s preaching of this story as gospel.” [3]  And the life which the Galatians received did not end with them; its truth continued to be given for the fullness of life each time the Word was shared verbally and by their example of Christian love.

I find the premise of Karris’ question, Does it give life? refreshing. It resonated deeply with my troubled soul on a day of great mourning that emerged in the midst of yet another week of growing outrage and hostility between humans, in a month of escalating global tension, in a year of white hot division that continues to compound like interest in hatred bearing account.

It was as if at the moment my emotions were dragging me to a dark placeKarris himself asked me, Does it give life?

In this usage, the word life probably needs defining. The life that Truth gives is not bestowed upon one person or a group of like-minded people, but on all people. If the truth is not true for all, it is not truth.

Truth is egalitarian, it is color blind, it exists outside of history, and it does not bend for gender or symbols of worldly power.

Truth is the soil of all human flourishing. Anything less can never claim to be true.[4]

I began to test the question Does it give life? against some of the controversial ideologies, political stances, religious judgments, human rights issues, and environmental policies that deserve our serious attention.

And what did I discover? That very little of what contemporary society sets forth—the ideologies, stances, and policies that we hold up as true—passes Karris’ test, and in fact too much of it intentionally restricts the flourishing of all but a particular group of like-minded individuals. It was startling.

Why do we not see this? Why? Because Truth is difficult.

Karris’ question made me think about how in recognizing Truth as life-giving I am able to think more clearly, and respond more accurately to what I read, what I hear being said, what I say to others, and what I align myself with.

As Christians, we have to think about what we profess to believe as Truth and how we live out that truth. For example, if we believe we have the right to remind others of Jesus’ command to love one another how then can we justify the various exceptions we have added to our observance of the Golden Rule?

Truth is hard, and it is challenging. It requires great sacrifice and persistence, and it demands both from us every single day. That’s what Jesus did, and it is what he told his disciples they’d have to do. It’s what Paul did. It is what the Martyrs of the early Church did. It’s what the Saints and modern-day spiritual heroes do. And it’s what we are called to do too.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] Galatians is the earliest example of Paul’s writing. It is read from the 10th through 14th Sundays of Ordinary Time, year C.

[2] For a quick but wonderful summary of Pauline history including a virtual tour of his missionary journeys, click here.

[3] Robert J. Karris, OFM. “The Letter to the Galatians”, in The New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament. edited by Daniel Durken. Collegeville, MN: Liturigical Press. 2009.  581-601, here 592.

[4] Are you interested in exploring philosophical arguments on the nature of truth? Visit the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Forgiveness: My Love Overflows

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

I’m an optimist; for me, the glass is nearly always full. But I have to say, look around. Do you see a lot of love happening in our world? I don’t mean love among our families and friends; I mean in our world, and by love I mean expressive, abundant, generous, nurturing and compassionate care between differing peoples and communities. Maybe a little?

How about forgiveness? You know, the kind that opens us and others to change, that makes it possible for good to knock out evil, that seeks peaceful resolutions, that reaches across differences in order to learn from disasters, and in the hardest cases when amends are not possible, the kind that wishes the ones who have harmed us no ill will. Well, do you?

More forgiveness = More Love

Consider the story of the sinful woman as told in Luke’s gospel [LK 7:36-8:3]. But first, allow me to disclose that just saying “the sinful woman” has presented an obstacle to my ability to write this reflection. We are each sinners with a past.

To identify a person with his or her past mistakes, no matter what they may be, is to strip them of the promise of human flourishing which we are each entitled to.

But you and I are guilty of this every single time we disparage or gossip about another person.

The ‘sinful’ woman in Luke’s gospel had no name; her entire being was reduced to the fact that she committed some act that was deemed sinful and irredeemable. For the remainder of her life she would be expected to carry that shameful burden like an unpayable debt.

That is, until she met Jesus.

Imagine the courage it took for her to enter the house of the Pharisee where Jesus was dining—a household where she knew she was judged as unclean.

But it was her faith in Jesus that moved her to place herself, silent but for her weeping, at Jesus’ feet where her sins dissolved into the salt of her tears. Her weeping, washing, wiping, kissing and anointing Jesus’ feet opened a floodgate of love and gratitude within her; the debt was forgiven. The woman’s life was restored. She was free. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” [LK 7:50]

Less Forgiveness = Less Love

But Simon the Pharisee, and, I suspect, the others reclining at the table, did not understand or appreciate the woman’s new lease on life. Where her heart was open and filled to overflowing, Simon’s remained closed and empty, even after Jesus tried to impart to him the meaning of forgiveness with the parable  of the two people whose debts were forgiven.

Simon seemed to be bound up in his belief that he was above sin. He locked himself in his self-made prison of righteousness, his mean little rule-based world. He and the others reclining at the table with Jesus simply could not comprehend that the woman’s abundant love was the sign of her forgiveness, of her be-Lovedness.

“The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” [LK 7:47]

Listen, forgiveness does not mean consequences magically disappear, they don’t. But forgiveness provides the generosity that a person needs to make amends. And from this freedom our love overflows.

It just makes sense, doesn’t it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

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NOTE: Luke’s placement of this gospel between two important stories about rejecting or accepting God’s invitation, adds more layers to the lesson on Love and Forgiveness. The first story includes Jesus’ pointed commentary on the lack of faith and obtuseness of those in the crowd who refused the baptism of John and therefore “rejected the plan of God for themselves.” [LK 7:30]. Jesus’ words indicate that even John, whom he said was the Prophet of whom Scripture spoke, was not accepted as God’s prophet because he did not look the part. In this commentary, we know Jesus is also speaking about his own rejection by the Pharisees. In the second story, the Parable of the Sower, Jesus acknowledged that only some of his followers possessed the faith to accept and act on God’s plan, and these ones were the good soil out of which the sower’s seed would produce “fruit a hundredfold.” [LK 8:8]

Compassion: I Suffer With You

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Earlier this week I awoke to the news that an infant was born in an area hospital to a 31-year old Honduran woman infected with the Zika virus. The mother was visiting the United States at the time of her daughter’s birth, and the child was born with microcephaly, a severe fetal brain defect caused by the Zika virus. According to a report on abcnews.go.com “The infant is only the second baby suspected of being born in the U.S. with the Zika virus-related birth defect, characterized by an abnormally small head and brain. Another baby was born with the condition in Hawaii earlier this year.”

How frightened that new mother must be. On the most fundamental level, the depth of her sorrow, and worry about her adequacy as a mother, and the sheer injustice of chance is more than I can comprehend. Through no fault of her own, she was bitten by a virus-carrying mosquito during her pregnancy. Because of this, her baby girl, like the thousands of other similarly afflicted infants born around the globe, and those yet to be born before this virus is eradicated, will never experience the fullness of their life’s flourishing.

The story of the Zika birth on U.S. soil flooded social media outlets. Armchair judges shared the news wildly, many adding their condemnation of the new mother and child for the entire world to see. I was not aware that so many people manage to remain alive with hearts made of stone.

“So now the American tax-payers have a new citizen requiring expensive, life-long care”

“This is total bullsh*t. She should have been put on a plane and sent right back to Honduras. You can bet she has no means to pay for this health care, so we the taxpayers will foot the bill.”

“It really sucks, I’m sure, to think that your pregnancy is effected by Zika, but it also sucks that someone comes to this country to give birth and milk hundreds of thousands of dollars in Healthcare services for your delivery and child when those who have been a taxpayer and a citizen isn’t getting that health care and being treated as a drain on the nation we’ve paid taxes to. Now this kid is a US citizen and can get a free ride on medical care, food, etc. We have got to change our laws, because people who are actual citizens are getting shafted.”

“So if you have a heathy heard of cattle would you bring in a cow knowing it had hoof and mouth disease? As simple as that. Wonder how much it will cost? They knew she had it!”

For some people, the value of life is “as simple as that.” The scale that weighs human worth is calibrated with the amount of taxes one pays into the system. Clearly, some people in our society think it is fine to abandon women and children who cannot support themselves. It is no exaggeration to observe how little we have progressed from the biblical culture in which it was acceptable for women who lacked male support to become destitute.

Am I judgmental? I admit I am. This whole way of thinking is excruciatingly painful to me. Still, I continue to hope in the inherent goodness of humankind.

I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that callous responses to the suffering of others are a learned behavior birthed from deep insecurities and the fear of losing one’s identity. I feel sorry for people who feel threatened or displaced by the needs of others and who find justification in their meanness and lack of kindness.

Still, we are all works in progress—myself included—and I believe hardened hearts can be softened, walls can be taken down, and layers of fear can be peeled away. It begins with the practice of suffering with one another: compassion.

Compassionate acts have the power to energize those whose lives are waning. Through our care and concern, God’s love for us is made known.

How often do we feel compelled to do unsolicited acts of kindness, empathy, and seek companionship, and friendship? Something as simple as a smile or a door held open for one who is suffering, and the seemingly random but thoughtful acts when one individual takes a moment to recognize another’s distress are examples of how God’s presence is revealed in human action.

Sometimes we are the dead who need resuscitating.

Luke’s Gospel story of the widow of Nain [Luke 7:11-17] provides us with a profound example of the life-giving power of compassion.

As Jesus, his disciples and the large crowd following him neared the entrance to the city of Nain they passed a widow accompanying the body of her only son to his burial place outside the city walls.

In biblical times, a woman’s identity and survival depended on male support. With the death of her son, the widow of Nain’s life also ended; the funeral procession was her own. She had no place to call home, no financial support, no identity; she was no longer a contributing member of society.

Jesus was moved with pity by the sight. The painful loss of the woman’s beloved son, his companionship, his care and his love for her ceased, and the future she faced as a childless widow moved Jesus to save her life by restoring the life of her son.

The challenge of compassionate living is not the same as the clichéd “what would Jesus do?” although WWJD has led people to make more life-giving and peaceable choices in difficult situations.

Compassion is about allowing God’s presence to work in us, with us and through us. Another person’s compassion or tenderness towards us has the power to restore us to a more abundant life.

Our concern and empathy for the plight of another, like the Zika-stricken Honduran woman and her microcephalic infant daughter, has the power to transform her life and ours from one state of being to another, from future without hope to one that offers the promise of abundant life.

Compassion is about taking on the cloak of the Prophet, dying to our own needs and fears, and joining them to one another’s.

That’s the miracle of restoring life to one whose life is all but lost.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Very Bread, Good Shepherd, Tend Us: The Body and Blood of Christ

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (C)

Many years ago, in another city, I participated in my parish’s bread baking ministry. This was a group of people who took turns making the large loaves of communion bread that the priest elevated during the consecration.

Many bakers, me included, consider bread-making to be a spiritual practice, but the ritual behind preparing this unleavened, soon-to-be-consecrated bread elevated the task of following a simple recipe of a few ingredients to the level of contributing an essential element to the liturgy.

I baked my bread in silence. No phone. No music. No distractions. I lit a candle and said a prayer of gratitude for the work I was about to begin. As I measured and sifted the flour and salt together, I reminded myself that this was the way bread had been made for thousands of years. Slowly adding the water, oil, and honey, I worked the dough with my fingers until I could gather and turn it out on a kneading board. I handled the dough gently, almost caressingly, and divided it into six pieces, one for each of the weekend’s liturgies. I flattened each piece to the exact thickness and diameter specified by the recipe and carefully scored the surface with a knife before baking so the celebrant could break it quickly into pieces for distribution with communion.

The homemade, whole wheat, unleavened bread was chewy and delicious, and no doubt those who received it in its consecrated form savored it, but the pieces from one loaf could not feed the entire assembly, so it was supplemented with enough communion hosts to serve everyone.

Confession time. If you haven’t already picked up on it, I experienced a bit of self-congratulatory, church lady pride from my bread-baking experience. And during the consecration as I watched the bread that I made with my own hands, in my own kitchen, being elevated, well, sigh, wasn’t I so blessed? What beautiful and delicious bread I baked, and how perfectly round it was, how perfectly scored and easily torn it was! How I loved to see the secret smiles on my young daughters’ faces as they chewed my bread instead of the standard issue wafer.

Egads! This is horrifying. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or hang my head in shame. Everything about this confession is appalling. Not only did my pride obstruct my reception of the Eucharist, it interfered with my knowledge of God’s will for me.

Don’t misunderstand. Bread baking ministries are wonderful. My fault is that I became attached to the act of baking bread, and to the bread itself because I lost sight of what I was doing, and why. What began as way to serve God through the liturgy became the means of my own self-elevation. I’m sure we can all think of other ministries, liturgical or not, which run the same risk. We must always be careful.

I’ve been researching the topic of detachment and am discovering how even virtuous acts born of good and holy intentions (such as baking the bread used for the Eucharist) can, if we are not attentive, become material attachments that push their way between us and God. Thomas Merton, in his classic book, New Seeds of Contemplation, says, “Attachment to spiritual things is therefore just as much an attachment as inordinate love of anything else.”[1]

Merton names the very things people do in order to draw closer to God. In our efforts to detach from worldly things like power and money and prestige for example, Merton says we cling instead to the means of being virtuous and holy. Prayer, fasting, devotional practices, penance, holy books, religious orthodoxy and the like often usurp the priority of seeking and doing God’s will.

We risk being blinded by our zeal, thinking God is pleased by our endless busyness. Merton says even spiritual goals like seeking a sense of God’s presence are attachments that get in the way of God’s pure communion with us.

Merton’s words recall the story of the rich young man from the gospel of Mark 10:17-31, who approached Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. A sincere man who loved God, who did the right things and was obedient to the laws and observed the rituals of his faith, he turned away when he learned the cost of heavenly treasure was his belongings, his identity and social status—everything he had. As the disappointed man walked away Jesus said “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Can you picture the faces of the disciples, who literally gave up everything to follow Jesus, when they heard these words? We also wonder “Then who can be saved?”

The ability to detach from our will to listen for God’s will is a herculean but essential practice if the words “thy will be done” are to have any meaning. It seems that our well-intentioned activities run the risk of becoming a kind of spiritual filibuster intended to hold off God’s will. It’s like we are saying, “Thanks for everything, but we’ll take it from here. Aren’t we wonderfully made?”

According to Merton, what God asks of us is to be quiet and allow the “secret work” that has begun in our souls to take place. Quiet means learning to silence our minds and pay attention. It also means quelling our need to take charge, to win, to be number one.

Which begs the question: What are we supposed to do?

I think part of the answer can be found in Luke’s account of the feeding of the multitudes, which we will hear proclaimed this weekend as we celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The story picks up after the newly commissioned apostles returned from their mission of “proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing.” [LK 9:2]. Jesus tried to retreat with them to a remote city where they could regroup but his presence attracted an enormous and hungry crowd. (Remember, in the days of Jesus hunger was a given; everyone was always hungry.)

We know the details of this story: Jesus welcomed the crowd and told them about the kingdom of God. The disciples saw both the lateness of the day and the crowd’s rising hunger and asked Jesus to dismiss the crowds so everyone could find food,  but Jesus’ challenged the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. All they had was five loaves of bread and two fish. So Jesus organized the crowd into manageable groups of fifty, blessed the spare meal and set it before them. Everyone ate, and there were twelve baskets of leftovers.

If we are attentive we will remember that in the kingdom of God there is no hunger or thirst. Yes, this was a miracle. Through the alleviation of their hunger, the crowd was given a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Still, some of us have to demythologize biblical miracles in order to settle on a logical human explanation. We miss the point when we insist there is no way that Jesus could have multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. We are positive it had to have been the people themselves who out of embarrassment or forgotten generosity, or love, opened their sacks and shared their food with one another.

It was Jesus who fed and who continues to feed the crowds, but that’s not to say the crowd also didn’t share their food with one another. It was love that fed the multitudes.

If anything this affirms our faith in the goodness of humankind and restores hope for the world. The theory that humans are inherently selfish is a lie. People want to give of themselves and help others in meaningful ways, such as sharing our food with those who have none. But the point Merton makes about attachments is important. How many of our works are motivated by the pure intention of drawing closer to God? Do we seek the face of God in the hungry? The poor? The refugees? How about our enemies? Does it matter? It does if we want to share the Love that feeds the world.

Very bread, good shepherd, tend us,
Jesu, of your love befriend us,
You refresh us, you defend us,
Your eternal goodness send us
In the land of life to see. [2]

Today’s readings can be found here. 

_______________________________

[1] Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Reprint. New York, New Directions, 2007.  205.

[2] Excerpt from the Lauda Sion sequence which is sung or proclaimed at the liturgies celebrating the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Innerness of All Things

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (C)

The Innerness of All Things, by Ranier Maria Rilke

You create yourself in ever-changing shapes
that rise from the stuff of our days—
unsung, unmourned, undescribed,
like a forest we never knew.

You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as a coastline, to the shore as a ship.

—The Innerness of All Things. Ranier Maria Rilke, From The Book of Hours II, 22.

On the first Sunday following Pentecost, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Trinity—the union of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as defined by the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinitarian language, in an effort to describe the nature of God, expresses the means of human salvation: it is the Creator’s self-surrender through Jesus which infuses all of God’s creation with the power of the Holy Spirit.

According to the gospel of John, while Jesus was gathered with his disciples the night before he died he spoke of this progressive action of divine giving and receiving, and told them to anticipate the Spirit’s taking and declaring the Father’s truth, by way of Jesus, to them.

“Jesus said to his disciples: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” [JN 16:12-15]

The mystery of the Triune God’s self-giving love is irrevocably tied to our reception of the truth, our salvation.

Yet for centuries efforts to describe the Trinity, the three divine persons-in-one, have resulted in analogies such as two men and a dove, a shamrock, a pretzel, a braid, and a three-part harmony, to name a few examples, or explained away with confounding and alienating paternal language that feels more like spiritual somersaults.

Our comprehension of the Trinity must emerge from the Christian experience of salvation; it cannot be forced into a concrete geometric object or intellectual exercise.

And so, our eyes glaze over. Every week we profess our Trinitarian belief, but I’m pretty sure most of us don’t really get it.

One of the problems is that we can’t resist dividing the Trinity into three parts. It’s natural. In order to understand something, we deconstruct it for a closer examination. But we aren’t sure how to mentally reassemble Trinity in a way that truly makes sense to us, so many Christians choose to favor one of the three persons over the whole, thereby depriving themselves of the fullness of Trinitarian spirituality.

“Jesus is my homeboy.” “I only pray to God the Father.” “I feel most connected to the Holy Spirit.”

This is really important: Trinitarian doctrine is not Tritheisim, it cannot be divided. We believe in one God, not three. And as Cardinal Walter Kasper says in his book, The God of Jesus Christ, “Trinity is the Christian form of monotheism.” The Trinity is the inseparable action of the Creator, Redeemer, and Advocate.

This is why I was inspired to lead with Ranier Maria Rilke’s poem, The Innerness of All Things. Although the poet does not mention God or the Trinity, he seems to grasp God’s immanent and wordless infusion in human activity and the flourishing of all creation.

“You are the deep innerness of all things, the last word that can never be spoken.”

This is the one Triune God who creates and emerges and is revealed and can be known in countless and surprising ways. This is our divine Source who dwells at the center of all things, sanctifying, redeeming, inspiring and drawing all of creation towards the divine Three-in-One.

Where Trinitarian language tends to confuse, perhaps the concept of the Triune God actively dwelling in the innerness of all things can provide some clarity.

Happy Feast of the Holy Trinity!

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Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) has been called “the greatest German poet of the twentieth century” (The Economist).

Rilke’s poem, The Innerness of All Things, can be found on page 243 of A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, by Anita Barrows, and Joanna Macy.  (1st edition. New York: HarperOne, 2009.)

You can find “A Year with Rilke” here, or through your favorite bookseller.